If AI Is Coming for Intelligentsia, the Intelligentsia Should Cheer

Mike Ditka grew up in Aliquippa, PA, a town most famous for high school football and J & L Steel. Ditka’s father worked J&L’s mills as did seemingly the majority of fathers in Aliquippa, but when his son was being recruited by both Penn State and Pitt for football, Ditka chose Pitt. It had the better dental school.

Ditka rates mention as a counter to Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle’s recent column suggesting that “the twilight of the 20th-century manufacturing boom” somehow “devastated workers and communities.” McArdle cites Bruce Springsteen’s music as a resonant cultural response to the alleged devastation except that Springsteen, by his own admission, has never even been inside a factory.

That wasn’t true for the eventual NFL Hall of Famer in Ditka. As the great S.L. Price noted in his spectacular 2017 book Playing Through the Whistle, it was in some ways a rite of passage for the sons and younger brothers of J&L mill workers to spend a day or preferably a summer in the mills long romanticized by Springsteen, politicians and U.S. presidents (Trump and Biden), and all manner of columnists. Of course the idea behind exposing Aliquippa’s youth to the truth about work at J&L was as a spur to exercise more and study harder in order to avoid them.

McArdle might agree that politicians and musicians overstate it a bit when talking about the past. The closure of mills and factories didn’t devastate the people from those towns, nor the towns themselves. More realistically, it was the ongoing existence of those factories and mills that devastated those towns, simply because they repelled the very human capital that gives cities and towns economic life in the first place.

If the closure of factories were the catalyst for economic and human decline, New York and Los Angeles (#1 and #4 manufacturing economies among U.S. cities 100 years ago) would be ghost towns today. The only economic risk to cities, states and countries is the exit of people, not jobs.

It cannot be stressed enough that it’s where jobs are destroyed the fastest, that economic opportunity is greatest. And vice versa. Ditka’s exit from Aliquippa is an anecdote, but also a reflection of a broader trend. Crucial here is that people, not politicians drive these trends. McArdle writes as though this isn’t true.

In her telling, “the Clintons tried to steer the economy toward a global, postindustrial future.” The bet here is that McArdle could be convinced otherwise, or likely believes otherwise. Politicians steer nothing. Economies just evolve, and the freer they are, the quicker and better the evolution in concert with a faster erasure of the work of the past.

Keep this in mind as McArdle writes in somewhat I-Told-You-So fashion that AI is coming for the jobs of the “intelligentsia.” She believes this is novel, that historically it was the “working class” that was displaced by automation. McArdle misfires twice. Automation didn’t displace the working class as much as those considered “working class” once again hated the work romanticized by the intelligentsia, only for automation to save the working classes and humanity from much of the work that used to be so risky to limb and life.

As for the white collar workers allegedly on the chopping block, McArdle would surely profit from a visit to Goldman Sachs, or realistically any top-tier investment bank. If so, she would see how profoundly the internet and technology more broadly have changed the nature of work, and those doing it for decades. All sorts of jobs and work functions erased, only for the head count at GS and those like it to rise. Which is logical.

Considering the future at investment banks, advances in spreadsheet technology and automation of financial analysis more broadly are predicted to render all sorts of entry-level work (“analyst” at investment banks) redundant. Hopefully it will, but if so this will hardly push the typical GS entry level into unemployment. Does anyone seriously think that Goldman would prefer that its expensive analysts spend all day and night doing what machines could do for them, that absent 120-hour weeks of crunching numbers that GS would have no other way to employ its associates, VPs, MDs, and Partners of the future? To believe Goldman desires the 120-hour/week status quo is the equivalent of believing that construction-crew bosses would prefer their employees work with spoons instead of diggers.

Which is just a reminder that as opposed to AI rendering anyone – white collar, working class, or in between – unemployed or unemployable, what automates human function will enhance it to the betterment of the human. In which case we can only hope that AI is coming for the white collars and intelligentsia, while also acknowledging that it’s always been this way. The problem for white collar workers and “intelligentsia” is not AI, but that its genius isn’t being felt fast enough.  

Republished from RealClear Markets


  • John Tamny

    John Tamny is a popular speaker and author in the U.S. and around the world. His speech topics include "Government Barriers to Economic Growth," "Why Washington and Wall Street are Better Off Living Apart," and more.

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